The Bank of the West (BotW) Classic, hosted at Stanford’s Taube Family Tennis Stadium, puts some of Stanford’s finest on display against the world’s top professional female tennis players.
One of the greatest advantages of BotW is its relaxed environment and close proximity to the stars. The tournament frequently attracts some fantastic talent, this year bringing in Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Kimiko Date-Krumm and defending champion Victoria Azarenka.
The tournament’s presence itself signifies the importance Stanford University places on its women’s athletics programs, particularly tennis. The Cardinal has the most successful women’s tennis program in the NCAA. By inviting the 32-player BotW to campus, the University is supporting women’s initiatives in sports the world and highlighting its success.
BotW also helps increase Stanford’s athletic presence in the Bay Area community, something the school struggles with occasionally. Many sportswriters touched on the school’s failure during the 2010 football season to reach out to local residents and cater the fan environment to them. The BotW annually invites the community to engage in Stanford Athletics and see the school’s top players compete and engage with world-class athletes in the community’s backyard.
Tournament organizers do a great job of making these players accessible while they are playing, practicing or signing autographs. It’s easy for players to interact with their fans and show their appreciation. As tennis becomes more popular, the gap between player and fan increases. At Stanford, this gap is largely eliminated, and having a close interaction with your favorite star is likely.
Five Cardinal players participated in the tournament, including recent graduate Hilary Barte and incoming freshman Ellen Tsay.
Barte recently finished up her career at Stanford as a four-time All-American in both singles and doubles and a two-time NCAA doubles champion. She graduated as one of the finest college players in the nation and a hometown favorite at the Bank of the West Classic. She was greeted as such in her first round match, earning applause from those who had watched her during her Stanford days.
“It feels different,” Barte said when asked to describe the feeling of coming back to Stanford as a professional. “The atmosphere is way different. Even though it’s Stanford and I’ve played there for four years, it still feels a little bit foreign.”
Barte says that the transition from playing as an amateur was surprisingly easy.
“Turning pro, it was a little anticlimactic,” she said. “I just wrote a little ‘p’ next to my name, and that was it. It was more of an attitude to take tennis very seriously and be more disciplined with everything I did, off the court especially.”
After playing her first WTA tournament as a professional last week in Lexington, Ky., losing in the first round to Ahsha Rolle (6-4, 2-6, 6-4), Barte earned a wild card into the main draw, Stanford’s only main draw competitor. She faced Chang Kai-Chen of Chinese Taipei in the first round. Chang used her powerful serve to full effect throughout the night. After shaking off early nerves, Chang came back from 2-5 down in the first set to beat Barte 7-5, 6-4.
“I was having a really tough time reading her toss,” Barte said. “She changed it up, and I think even the speed of the courts, she did a great job playing that up. I physically didn’t feel that tight, but I think mentally I started thinking about the future a bit too much.”
Many people argue about whether it is good for a player to attend a college tennis program or not. In some circles, it is an experience that increases mental fortitude and emotional stability once a player does go pro. For others, it is time wasted in class that should be spent competing against the best. Barte is a member of the former camp.
“I was actually deciding between trying to play professional right out of high school and coming here [to Stanford],” she said. “I think coming here was the best decision of my life. Perhaps it wasn’t the best thing for my tennis development, but it did unbelievable things for my life, my mentality.”
Tsay, in a brave display of future performances on Stanford’s center court, fought through three tough sets before succumbing 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 to Seng-Nan Sun of China.
Rising sophomore Nicole Gibbs, in her first qualifying match at the BotW, earned a measure of revenge for Barte, defeating Rolle in a dominating 6-3, 6-1 performance. Rolle was unable to muster much of anything as Gibbs’ return game put her into the next round against qualifying’s fifth seed Ajla Tomljanovic. Tomljanovic came in with a powerful groundstroke game that was overpowering for the smaller Gibbs. Ever the fighter, Gibbs capitalized on her opponent’s mistakes to take the second set but lost 6-4, 1-6, 6-1 in the end.
Rising junior Stacey Tan upset qualifying’s sixth seed Heidi El Tabakh of Canada in her first match back at Stanford. A close first set was followed by a blowout final set by Tan for a 7-5, 6-1 victory. Her great play didn’t last long before she lost 6-0, 6-0 in the next round to another Canadian, Marie-Eve Pelletier. With her loss, the last of the Stanford girls was out of the tournament.
Rising sophomore Kristie Ahn was back for her first match since her season-ending ankle injury in the finals of the NCAA tournament. The injury prevented her, one of Stanford’s best players, from competing against the Gators and may have been a deciding factor in their narrow victory. Her return to competition was hopeful.
“It felt great,” Ahn said about returning. “Not physically great, but emotionally, just to be able to step out on the court and be able to play a match or as much of a match as I could, it was great. It was a decently close match, well at least in the first set it was. It was my first match competing again, and it was at Stanford, so obviously you can’t get too much better than that.”
Ahn fought tough the entire first set against the 30-year-old veteran Abigail Spears of the United States. The injury began to sting, and in the second game of the second set, Ahn pulled up, clearly in pain. She went to her seat and called her coach.
“I guess you could call it a small tweak,” she explained. “At that point, it was just bombarding my head with worries and concerns. I couldn’t put much pressure on it, and stepping into the ball, I kind of just froze.”
Ahn clearly was unwell but finished the match, ultimately unable to muster much in the last four games and losing 7-5, 6-0. She says her ankle is still healing and simply needs more time.
“For the most part it’s fine and just needs more time to recover,” Ahn said. “Most of it’s in the head, just because you start thinking and then you start freaking out, essentially. Then you can’t focus on the match, then you don’t want to focus on the match because you’re so focused on your ankle.”
BotW will conclude this weekend, with both singles and doubles semifinals being played on Saturday and both finals on Sunday.
Contact Will Seaton at wseaton “at” stanford.edu.